Community Advocates, Champlain Oaks Project
“Tree stewardship aims to conserve the kings and queens, and grandmothers and grandfathers within that very canopy.” Champlain Oaks Project celebrates and protects bur oaks and other large trees in the Champlain Park neighbourhood. Project members discuss the ancestry of oak trees, their value, why they need our protection, and some of the challenges facing their survival.
Photos: Chris Osler
Q.1. What is the Champlain Oaks project, when was it initiated and who is part of it?
The Champlain Oaks project began in the fall of 2010. We are a neighbourhood group made up of people living in Champlain Park ‘hood. We were particularly active from 2011 to 2013 with more than a dozen people coming to meetings. Our initial focus was on a species of oak called the bur oak, but we’ve also defended and celebrated black walnut, American Basswoods and silver maple trees in the neighbourhood. We don’t seem to be fussy about which tree species to protect; if it’s a big tree, we embrace it.
Q.2. What does the Champlain Oaks project set out to accomplish?
We want to celebrate and protect the large bur oaks that grow naturally in our neighbourhood. By “grow naturally” I mean that they were here before houses were built. They are descendants of an original oak forest along the shores of the Ottawa River. The City of Ottawa and today’s citizens have nothing to do with the existence of the really big trees. They grew on their own, with help from squirrels who forgot where they planted certain acorns.
Q.3. What motivates your group to research, write about and advocate for trees?
Majestic trees that provide shade to our backyards and stand sentinel on various street corners and backyards are special. They need people to give voice to their value.
Q.4. From your perspective, what are the contributions made by trees that make them so important and valuable?
Where would humans be without the plants and trees that cover our planet? They are the basis for so much of life on earth. In cities, trees help to remind people of all ages that we are part of the natural world. Right now, a linden tree in our front yard is in bloom. Its fragrance is heavenly! Without that tree, would my senses be as acute as they are? The human eye, someone told me, can discern more shades of green than any other colour.
Q.5. What is it that makes your neighbourhood bur oak trees, in particular, significant?
I would like to clarify that they are not “our” bur oak trees. We don’t own them. Nobody does. They are significant because they have grown in this place as a remnant of a large oak forest from the time 10,000 years ago when the ice retreated. Their genes are unique to this place.
Q.6. What value do the oak trees bring to your neighbourhood?
They raise property values, if people don’t cut them down! They cool our homes in summer, and I learned recently that the best place to have a large tree is on the west side of a house. They give all kinds of creatures a place to live. They help us get exercise in the fall because most of us decide to rake up the leaves. Don’t talk to me about leaf blowers! Big trees give children something to climb up, maybe curl up in and swing from.
Q.7. Are most people in your community aware of the great bur oaks and, if so, do most people support the efforts to protect them?
Pretty much everyone in the neighbourhood appreciates the fact that this is still a treed neighbourhood. Many know about the bur oaks in particular. If you have a massive bur oak growing nearby and you truly see it and appreciate it every day, you may want to protect it. Still, there are people that would not hesitate to cut down a healthy bur oak or other large tree on their property for any number of trivial reasons: because they don’t like to rake the leaves, or it blocks their view, or they want to widen their driveway. Some seem to see the Champlain Oaks as an unwanted police force they need to hide from.
Q.8. What kind of community events have you held to raise the community’s appreciation and awareness about the bur oaks?
In December 2013, we hosted the launch of indoor and outdoor exhibits at the community fieldhouse. More than 120 people were on hand with no purpose but to celebrate the links that exist among people, trees, and the Ottawa River shoreline that is so close to our neighbourhood. Protests over cutting, stories in local newspapers, presentations at community meetings, community celebrations of National Tree Day, and planting of young saplings by children at St. George School, have raised awareness about these particular trees. Lots of people have attended our events over the last few years. We expanded a bit outside Champlain Park in 2014 to put tree protection on the municipal election agenda for Kitchissippi ward. Eight community associations had tree reps for that initiative and jointly developed materials to circulate in their neighbourhoods. One of our group members suggested we create a tree mascot, so that was a project we took on in the spring of 2015.
Q.9. In your opinion, why is it important for citizens to raise awareness about trees and to advocate for their protection?
In 2015, when people look around, they see dead ash trees everywhere. This is the fault of a tiny insect creeping north because of climate change. It’s shocking to see so many dead and dying trees, and we hope it spurs people to understand why it’s important to protect other large, healthy trees.
Unfortunately, many urbanites think trees are expendable. Hey, if we cut this one down, we’ll plant a baby tree and our karma stays good. Maybe we’ll even go to heaven. We’ve been learning a terrible truth in the last few years, that if you advocate for planting baby trees, everybody loves and agrees with you. That’s not necessarily the case if you advocate against damage or destruction of healthy trees.
Q.10. What are the threats to the bur oak and other trees in your community?
Humans. Humans. Humans. And a lack of enforcement of its own bylaws by the City of Ottawa. It passed a tree bylaw that has “conservation” in its title in 2009, but we have come to understand all the ways that city officials have failed miserably in protecting mature trees from damage and destruction. When we see how many mature trees have been destroyed so that somebody can build and sell houses to make a profit, we are left with a deep disappointment toward the management of Forestry Services and on up through the official hierarchy. We are not talking about forestry officers, who are often dedicated to mature trees, but about the managers not standing up to ensure policy enforcement. The trees covered under this bylaw are trees of any species on private property, 50 cm or more in diameter.
Q.11. What are the challenges to protecting the trees in your community?
Most people alive today believe in the sanctity of private property. And it’s no secret that the City of Ottawa—and its planning department in particular—care about paving the way for small-scale infill developers to do business. This means that the profits of infill developers trump the social and environmental benefits of protecting mature trees.
Q.12. Many community associations across Ottawa formed a new group called Community Associations Forum on Environmental Sustainability (CAFES) to advocate for environmental stewardship at the municipal level. In relation to trees and urban forests, what is CAFES advocating for?
It’s not possible to answer for them, except to say that they are concerned, as are many people who live in established neighbourhoods in Ottawa’s urban core, about the way the existing urban canopy seems to have been abandoned, despite policies that are supposed to conserve the kings and queens, the grandmothers and grandfathers, within that very canopy.
Q.13. Why is it important for community associations to band together on issues related to environmental stewardship?
We are the people we have been waiting for. It’s up to us to ally ourselves with elected officials who care about climate change, who understand the environmental benefits mature trees provide in the urban core.
Q.14. What advice, if any, do you have for other citizens who are interested and concerned about the plight of trees in Ottawa?
You need to be prepared to fight. You need to be in it for the long haul. We explored the possibility of suing the City of Ottawa for its non-enforcement of the Urban Tree Conservation Bylaw but the lawyers we contacted didn’t think a judge would rule against the City. The great irony is that a legal threat by a developer—to sue the City for impeding his right to maximize profits—is what caused a huge bur oak to be destroyed in our neighbourhood in the spring of 2011. The City was complicit in this. So, if you want to protect trees in Ottawa, you have to be prepared to fight City Hall and change its priorities.